In response to:

Kafka Up Close from the February 10, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Frederick Crews’s piece “Kafka Up Close,” while treating several new books on Kafka, perpetrates an astonishing number of factual errors and many disturbing distortions. Crews directs us to the newest editions of Kafka’s works, yet he cannot spell correctly the German title of Kafka’s most famous novel and misnames another: the correct spelling of Der Prozeß is Der Process and the name of the novel Crews chooses to call Amerika is Der Verschollene (The Man Who Was Never Heard From Again). Crews tells us that the two newest editions “now compete to be recognized as definitive.” This idea is astounding when you consider that the Stroemfeld edition is a facsimile edition of Kafka’s manuscripts, with the purpose in mind of documenting the impossibility of such a thing as a “definitive edition” of this fragmentary oeuvre. In Nicholas Murray’s new biography Kafka, Murray portrays a guilt-ridden Kafka who in 1920 jilted his fiancée Julie Wohryzek, whereupon by all accounts she died in a mental home. Crews’s version of this matter is to report that Murray’s book is “fully conversant with the current state of research” and furthermore that Julie Wohryzek died in the Holocaust! Crews asserts that Kafka composed his story “The Judgment” in one fevered night, but that this mood never returned; to prove that the mood never returned, he quotes a lamentation from Kafka’s diary written two months before he wrote “The Judgment.” Crews gives an essay by Walter Sokel entitled “Zwischen Gnosis und Jehovah: Zur Religionsproblematik Franz Kafkas” as a covert German source of Stanley Corngold’s ideas. But it is well known that this influential article has been republished in various versions in English and is cited and attributed at length in Corngold’s book.

Crews’s distortions are especially egregious in his approach to Corngold’s work throughout. Crews paraphrases the argument of Corngold’s Lambent Traces, as follows: “Kafka was a gnostic dualist who… meant his literary works to be acts of communication with a realm of transcendent essence.” It is hard to make much sense of this, either as a summary of gnostic dualism or as a digest of any argument Corngold offers. Crews appears to be either unwilling or unable to grasp Corngold’s initial and crucial distinction between the religious tradition of a transcendental, “upper-case” Gnosticism and the cultural strategy of an immanent, “lower-case” gnosticism; the latter is a “descriptor” of Kafka’s mode of writing. What his book says is that Kafka’s writing is informed ideally by this gnostic verve, a swift leave-taking from the “sensory world”; it includes the writer’s ecstasy and a sense of bodily detachment; writing as a consuming of or leaping off experience; and a vast world of inspirations (“die ungeheure Welt, die ich im Kopfe haben“) conveying the promise of a higher perception. There is nothing here about communicating with “essence” but only the hope of producing works good enough to survive in a world of books and readers. Kafka’s relation to theological Gnosticism is another thing. In his journals you find continual notations on death and dying and the desire to die; and especially around 1917–1918, when Kafka does not write stories, his thoughts issue in aphoristic arguments distinctly reminiscent of historical Gnosticism. It is in the field of tension between these two concerns—between “consuming the self” (Selbstaufzehrung) and “casting off the self” (Selbstabschüttelung)—that Kafka’s life and writing make their way. This is the double strand of Kafka’s neo-Gnosticism, bound by a conflict at once tormented and witty.

In a similarly casual manner, Crews quotes Corngold’s verdict that “for [Sander] Gilman, Kafka is not anti-Semitic enough”—a phrase that in isolation looks absurd, as if Corngold were saying that Gilman believed that Kafka himself was an anti-Semite who would have been better off had he been more of one. But the phrase comes at the end of a long argument. Gilman himself argues that Kafka internalized the anti-Semitic slurs of his time and then expressed them in his work, though the evidence of his having actually done so is meager. Gilman holds that plain externalization of the anti-Semitic threat in one’s writing would be the better alternative. Corngold’s response clearly aims to reduce to absurdity the idea that if the Jews of Europe had not fled into high modernism and other forms of self-repression they could better have resisted their annihilation. Crews may not find this view convincing, but along with his failure to represent Corngold’s views to his readers, he also declines to put forward any reasonable arguments for his skepticism. Instead he is content to describe Corngold’s argument as “a vicious slur and nothing more.”

As a longstanding reader and admirer of The New York Review of Books, I am astonished to find so careless a represen-tation of an issue in literary scholarship that deserves more than merely marginal attention.


Benno Wagner
Associate Professor of Literary Theory and German Literature
University of Siegen
Siegen, Germany

Frederick Crews replies:

Benno Wagner, the exercise of whose “greater powers” Stanley Corngold anticipated with such vindictive glee, has trawled my essay for any embarrassments that might be of use to his friend’s cause. His catch consists of one sardine: I erred (and Nicholas Murray did not) in saying that Julie Wohryzek perished in the Holocaust. She died in a mental institution, though by no means, as Wagner implies, directly after having been abandoned by Kafka.

The ersatz nature of Wagner’s critique is most clearly exposed in his profession of shock that I could have “misspelled” the “correct” book title Der Process and that I “misnamed” another novel, Der Verschollene, as Amerika. Wagner knows perfectly well that the traditional German title of The Trial has always been Der Prozeß. Kafka was a haphazard speller, and some scholars continue to believe that Max Brod was justified in regularizing Process to the standard Prozeß. In any event, critics have routinely referred to the published novel as Der Prozeß, and Stanley Corngold is one of them (see, e.g., Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form, p. 91n.).

As for Amerika, the title was a more dubious choice on Brod’s part, but it has stubbornly survived in English, most recently in Michael Hofmann’s New Directions version of 2002, Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared. If I have misnamed the book, then so has Corngold, repeatedly, in his Lambent Traces of 2004 (see pp. 21, 42, 105, 179, 183–185, 190).

Wagner’s other complaints are equally insubstantial. If he thinks I was wrong to say that the sustained mood of exaltation behind “The Judgment” was unique in Kafka’s creative life, he ought to present some evidence; but lacking any, he nitpicks over the earliness of a self-depreciating diary entry that could be matched by dozens of later ones. He also feigns amazement over my strictly accurate observation that two editorial projects have been in competition to establish definitive texts by appealing in different ways to the au-thority of manuscript readings. Further, he purports to refute a claim I didn’t make: that Corngold lifted Walter Sokel’s the-sis about Kafka and gnosticism without acknowledgment.

Wagner’s laborious exposition of what Corngold meant by Kafka’s gnosticism boils down to another quibble, this time over “transcendental essence.” Readers of Lambent Traces will find Corngold wavering between the two senses of gnosticism explained by Wagner. For Kafka, Corngold writes, “there is a spiritual world…, while the sensory world, including the material creation and its demiurge, remain [sic] evil” (p. 107). And according to Corngold, the writer considered his true father to be “the Gnostic divinity, the source” (p. 37).

The ludicrous moments in Lambent Traces come when such notions are directly applied to Kafka’s fiction. Thus when Gregor Samsa is alarmed by the menacing advance of his suddenly unfamiliar father, Corngold’s X-ray vision detects a reference, by antithesis, to the theology of the second-century heretic Marcion:

Here…the Marcionist dualism is “estranged.” For if the father who appears to his verminous son Samsa is “higher” than the invalid that Gregor had imagined, in Ireneaus’s account of Marcionism it is precisely the “lower” of the contrasted gods who is warlike, concupiscent, and inconstant. Granting that Kafka’s relation to his reading is allusive and metamorphic, we could still find traces here of the Marcionist and other Gnostic gods at work [p. 9].

If Wagner hadn’t been bent on serving as Corngold’s enforcer, he could have reserved some of his “astonishment” for strained readings such as that.

Finally, Wagner may be correctly supplying the rationale behind Corngold’s remark about Sander Gilman’s wish for a more anti-Semitic Kafka, but the original statement is still a libel. In Gilman’s view, the tragic internalization of racist stereotypes helped to weaken resistance to Nazism, and “the fantasies about the Jewish body in the medicine of the fin-de-siècle become the horror of the Shoah” (Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient, p. 243). To say that such a critic would have liked Kafka to be more anti-Semitic is to invert not just his argument but his most deeply held values.

To the Editors:

Frederick Crews’s review of two of my books [“Kafka Up Close,” NYR, February 10] brings to light but does not fairly account for the disagreements between us on the interpretation of Kafka. His description of my work is beneath refutation: every single citation is ripped from its explanatory context. His account of my 1988 book Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form as “de Manian deconstructionist” is so ill-informed that no discussion of it is possible.


Regarding the value of Kafka’s writings, I differ from Crews fundamentally, and I cannot guess what he means by comparing Kafka to Mel Brooks. Nor do I share his satisfaction with Edmund Wilson’s view that it is impossible “to take [Kafka] seriously as a major writer.” But these are matters of personal judgment. A false recollection of literary history is involved in Crews’s notion that Kafka criticism in the 1960s was attuned to “cold war ideology”: the splendid book of that era was Wal-ter Sokel’s psychoanalytically driven Franz Kafka: Tragik und Ironie. And Crews’s credentials as an intellectual historian might give us pause when he writes that Kafka’s quality as a “seeker of God” heightened his appeal to “existentialism.” His account of what he calls “the current state of research” is even less reliable.

There remains the question of Crews’s argumentative decorum; here powers greater than my own are at work rectifying his license. But one example should be singled out. According to Crews, I “imply” in my book Lambent Traces that critics of a rival tendency—professors Elizabeth Boa and Sander Gilman—are in so many words “‘cultural studies’ thugs.” In fact, I introduce these “thugs” as “two redoubtable scholars …of vivid and influential works” (p. 196).

Stanley Corngold
Professor of German and Comparative Literature Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Frederick Crews replies:

Stanley Corngold is flailing at shadows. As I will show, his letter succeeds only in calling his own discernment and forthrightness into question.

To begin with the smallest matters, Corngold’s seemingly exact quotations from me (“de Manian deconstructionist”) and from Edmund Wilson do not appear in my essay or Wilson’s own. I did not rank Kafka’s literary merits with those of Mel Brooks, nor did I endorse Wilson’s view of him a minor figure. Instead, I wrote that Wilson’s dissent in 1947 was an understandable backlash against an idolatry that had turned the droll, teasing, self-effacing Kafka into a metaphysical guru—a role that Corngold has lately attempted to revive by treating the author as a humorless gnostic visionary.

Corngold saddles me with the opinion that Kafka was a “seeker of God,” and he professes amazement that I could connect this theistic strain in the writer to existentialism. Further, he disputes my alleged statement that “Kafka criticism in the 1960s” was “attuned” to nothing but cold war ideology. Here are the sentences from which those inferences were heedlessly gleaned:

For [Max] Brod,…Kafka was a modern saint who, torn between belief and unbelief, “sought God” throughout his later writings and hoped to advise his readers about how to conduct the ethical life. That conception would fit neatly with the future vogue of existentialism, with ethnicity-effacing liberalism, and with cold war ideology, which placed a premium on universal values that the atheistical and class-conscious Marxists had spurned.

I gather that Corngold rejects any imputation that Kafka was posthumously recruited to the cause of anticommunism after World War II. He would do well to read a penetrating book by Stephen D. Dowden, Kafka’s Castle and the Critical Imagination (Camden House, 1995), which explores the ideologically charged postwar apprehension of Kafka in both Germany and the US. It is especially naive on Corngold’s part to dispose of the issue by citing one psychoanalytic study from the Sixties. Can he be unaware that a whole generation of formerly leftist critics, stunned by the Hitler–Stalin pact and later anxious to slip the net of McCarthyism, exchanged Marx for the individualist and anti-utopian complexities of the Freudian psyche?

Corngold denies that I had grounds for saying that his Lambent Traces pillories Elizabeth Boa and Sander Gilman as crude exemplars of antiliterary “cultural studies.” My essay spelled out his self-interested misrepresentations of those critics’ work, including the wild and malicious charge that “for Gilman, [Kafka] is not anti-Semitic enough.” Rather than try to justify that slur or any of the other distortions that I named, Corngold now pretends that he treated both Boa and Gilman with the utmost collegial generosity.

In sketching the recent course of Kafka studies, I distinguished, conventionally, between the deconstructive wave that subsided in the 1980s and the historicizing spirit that has supplanted it. Corngold’s gravest charge is that I completely invented the affinity of his Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form with the earlier school and its leader, Paul de Man. If so, the “argumentative decorum” of my article was indeed contemptible. But if not, Corngold himself is the unethical party here.

The deconstructive approach to literature was marked by a number of signature traits: an aloofness from cause-effect relations, “originary” historical factors, and determinate “intended meanings”; a denial that literature is “about” anything besides reading and writing; a concentration on destabilizing, infinitely regressive linguistic effects; a ponderous coyness about the critic’s own immersion in the swirling current of interpretation; a blurring of the line between a given author’s metaphors and the critic’s own; a dense opacity of style, whereby vague abstractions conjoined to perform a slowly circling Dance of the Elephants; and explicit obeisance to certain prized authorities such as Derrida, Lacan, and de Man, along with the forefathers Nietzsche and Heidegger. Every one of those features is on display in Corngold’s book.

“My understanding of Kafka’s fiction,” wrote Corngold in Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form,

is of an enterprise that aims to engage to the limit the being wholly centered on writing…. Aspects of Kafka’s project invite eloquent redescription from texts by writers like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze, for whom writing responds to the (non)origin of articulation, difference, and deferral and for whom literature incessantly figures desire and death as writing [p. 295].

Accordingly, Corngold looked for every opportunity to treat Kafka’s plots as allegories of textuality. “In the Penal Colony,” he declared, “opens toward ecstatic writing because it is not about experience but about writing” (p. 247). Seemingly unliterary personages such as the businessman Georg Bendemann, his anonymous Russian friend, and the traveling salesman Gregor Samsa were promoted to the status of “writers,” and “the chief action of Kafka’s stories” was asserted to be “a rapt, immersed reading” (p. 294). Of Gregor as insect Corngold remarked, “at least the pleasure he has in swinging on the ceiling seems to indicate a sort of joy of reading” (p. 294n.).

In many pages of protracted rumination, Corngold intermixed his own insights with already enigmatic passages from Kafka, thus producing (often specious) effects of “chiasmus” yielding a “boundless field of incessant metaphorical exchange” (p. 121), a “free play between given metaphors which accommodates new metaphors at the same time that it robs each of determinate meaning” (p. 123), and “a movement of thought that spirals on through endless reversals” (p. 153). Even when he made so bold as to suggest that Kafka may after all have possessed a “self” capable of “reference” (but to what?), he arrived at that conclusion through the same Derridean practice of ahistorical dithering over images.

As for de Man in particular, Corngold’s debt to him in Franz Kafka was enormous and gratefully acknowledged. The book abounded in deferential quotations from de Man about “the presence of a nothingness” in literature (p. 27n.), the “horizon” of “totalization” (p. 293n.), and so forth. One footnote even disclosed that four sentences of Corngold’s main text had been adapted from an essay of de Man’s (p. 78n.).

Although Corngold didn’t endorse all of de Man’s judgments about Kafka, he devoted a whole chapter to exploring a patently nonsensical issue that de Man had posed: whether it is possible at all to include Nietzsche and Kafka in “any literary history” (p. 139). Corngold’s finding—“A literary history including Nietzsche and Kafka halts before the interminable reversal, the unstable chiasm, indwelling their positions”—was accompanied by a further bow to de Man, who had given him the idea of sniffing out “chiasmi” in the first place (p. 163). And when Corngold came to state his own rock-bottom belief in “literature’s independence of the circumstances surrounding its production of meaning, including the intention of the reader and the intention with which an author has endowed his raw materials,” he glossed that credo with still another citation of de Man (p. 292).

De Man continues to be liberally referenced in Corngold’s recent Lambent Traces, which, by the way, reaffirms “Kafka’s affinity with the ethos of a rigorous deconstruction” (p. 201). If the villains of Corngold’s last chapter are Sander Gilman and Elizabeth Boa, who are made to stand for “contamination,” its single hero is de Man, who “broke a lance for purity” (p. 202). And though Corngold is properly chagrined by the revelation of de Man’s early service to Hitler, he points out in seeming mitigation that de Man had at least exempted a certain “Kafha” from the Jewish cultural rot that the young Belgian journalist joined the Nazis in denouncing (p. 201).

It may be time for Professor Corngold to think a little harder about “purity”—Kafka’s, de Man’s, but most of all his own.

This Issue

April 7, 2005